Monday, June 26, 2006

UPDATES: Jonathan Cohen, blogger of the excellent Business Watch and specialist in ‘socially-responsible business’, explains that net-neutral “is a complicated” matter “evolving as we speak,” but essentially “relates to whether the Internet highway stays the same or charges tolls.”

He adds: “The Internet highway is to democracy as the paved highway is to commerce.”

The Post’s position is to let things run their course; if things go wrong, Congress can step in — but not “pre-empt” the process.

The Examiner, a local Washington-metro daily, editorializes that protecting net neutrality is important, but should not be legislated; otherwise, such state control would be as destructive as any corporate takeover. So, if we “suppress an open and democratic flow of information”, either through state or corporate control, we lose out (“Congress should keep its hands off the Internet,” 22 June 2006, p. 18).

Jeffrey Birnbaum, author of the “K Street Confidential” column at the Post, writes that the advocacy propaganda from both pro- and anti-neutrality is muddying the public conception of what it all really means.

But what does it mean? I asked him, on a Post chatroom:

My understanding of this net neutrality issue is not exactly clear, but does it break down to whether telecom corporations can effectively monopolize broadband service through higher so-called access barriers? If so, would enacting a preservation of net-neutral law signal a move to state control of the Internet?


I personally don’t see anything as drastic at stake here as ‘state control.’ The state doesn’t want control and no one wants to give it to the state. What is at stake is a little loosening of rules that would allow broader pricing authority. I did get a call this morning from an Internet veteran who did assert that companies could be allowed to meddle in content, but I doubt that the government would permit much of that.”

Mr. Cohen had referred me to an Associated Press wire, in which we read that advocates at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) oppose the “‘wait and see’” approach called for by the editors at the Post.

From the CDT report:

As a preliminary matter,” we read, “CDT believes the term ‘network neutrality’ is imprecise and has come to mean different things to different stakeholders in the debate. For some, network neutrality means creating a full common carriage regime for broadband networks; for others, the focus is on interconnection. …”

It continues: “… the focus of the debate today should be squarely on preserving the openness of the Internet — as opposed to other, non-Internet services that also may be carried over broadband networks. … ‘Internet’ neutrality better reflects the proper scope of the issue than does ‘network’ neutrality” (p. 1).

Whether this is simply semantics, I can’t say, but the CDT does clarify. “… the Internet has always been a ‘neutral’ network,” it reads, adding that it “was developed within the academic world, relying on funding from the U.S. government, as a means of supporting research and education in the sciences and engineering. Commercial interests were not initially involved” (p. 4).

In conclusion, the CDT does not support “binding rules” but, rather, seeks to “require careful monitoring and reporting” to prevent any “favorable treatment” in the public, “neutral Internet” (p. 11). That appears to be something of a consensus; that is, do not let the grid runners get tied up, but also do not let those people (within their rational self-interests) choke off and close avenues of opportunity and growth in the system.

(S. 2686 remains under hearing and committee revision. On June 22, Sen. Stevens [the bill’s principal author] explained, in plain English, “Various provisions in the bill have been endorsed by nearly every segment of the communications industry”, such as “the US Telephone Association, the National Cable Telecommunications Association, the Cellular Association, the Satellite Association, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, all of the rural telephone associations, and the National Association of Broadcasters. …” And others.)

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